June 17, 2014
Today’s gospel: Matthew 5:43-48
After giving the very challenging teaching of loving one’s enemies, Jesus topped it off with an impossible command. “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48). But only God is perfect. How can we attain to the perfection of God?
Indeed we cannot be perfect as God is perfect, simply because we are not God. We are imperfect human beings. But we are destined to attain to that perfection, as children of God, when we finally live in heaven. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2). In heaven we shall see God as He is, and we shall be like Him. But while on this earth, we are to strive to be like Him.
God gives us this very high ideal of perfection because of His great love for us, and because of our destiny according to His eternal plan. God does not want to give us a goal that is less than what He intends for us, even if such highest of goals cannot as yet be achieved on earth.
What is perfection? It is absolute purity, it is holiness unto the Father. How can we strive for perfection in this life?
First, we need to be conscious of who we are, the children of God. We need to know that God created us in His image and likeness, to be like Him. We do not have to be destroyed by sin. By the salvation already won by Jesus on the cross, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can avoid sin and wrongdoing. “No one who is begotten by God commits sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he is begotten by God.” (1 Jn 3:9). Now of course we know we do sin. “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8). But we can always turn to Jesus in repentance. “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” (1 Jn 1:9). And “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then …. the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” (1 Jn 1:7).
Second, we need to know that God commands it. “For I, the Lord, am your God. You shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean” (Lv 11:44). We must desire to please God our Father, and Jesus our Savior. God loved us with an eternal love. We are to love Him in turn. The way we do that is to obey His commands. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (Jn 15:10a).
Third, we need to live in love. We are to love God with our all, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. How are we to love? We look at the characteristics of love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7). Wow! If you can do those, then you are well on your way to perfection. This is why Paul said, “And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” (Col 3:14).
Fourth, we need to persevere. We will fail, but we must strive once again. We will fall, but we must get up and plod on. It certainly is not easy to be like Jesus. He is perfect, we are not. But Jesus promises to be there with us, helping carry our yoke, guiding us in the way we are to go, giving us the graces we need. We just need to keep on plugging away. “And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jas 1:4).
There is one other aspect of perfection that we need to look at, and that is mercy. The counterpart saying recorded by Luke is this: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:36). God is love. God is mercy. Many Old Testament passages interchange the meaning of the Hebrew word “hesed” as love or mercy. Matthew has Jesus saying we must be perfect after his discourse on love of enemies. In like manner, Luke has Jesus saying we must be merciful after his discourse on love of enemies.
God so loved us that He was merciful to us. We were all sinners, lost in darkness, but God sent His very own Son Jesus to win for us our salvation. That is the extent of His love, His mercy.
What is mercy? It is kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly. It is kindness or help given to those who are in a very bad or desperate situation. It is compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender who is subject to one’s power.
In telling us to love one another, God also tells us to be merciful to each other. Thus Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, where they are to say “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Jesus even connects the forgiveness we can expect from God with the forgiveness we extend to others. “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Mt 6:14-15). When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him, suggesting a generous seven times, Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18:22). In other words, without limit!
Then Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant. The king, out of mercy, decided to forgive the huge debt of one of his servants. But that servant would not forgive a much smaller debt owed to him by another servant. The master then said to that servant, “You wicked servant! Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Mt 18:32a,33). Then the master in anger handed that servant over to the torturers. Jesus then warns us, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Mt 18:35). We sinned against God Himself, but God forgave us. So too should we be merciful to others.
We can see that if we are able to forgive others, especially when they have done much harm to us, that we are growing in perfection.
Finally, we have said that we are not God, and so cannot attain to the perfection of God. However, the ways of God are mysterious. “Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2:7). We cannot completely fathom His ways. Judith says, “how then can you fathom God, who has made all these things, or discern his mind, or understand his plan?” (Jdt 8:14b). And so we say, yes we are not God, but ….
What do the Church Fathers and the Saints say?
*St Peter: “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:3-4a).
*St Augustine: “God became man, so that man might become God.” To St Augustine, the incarnation was about the deification of man.
*St Athanasius: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
*St Irenaeus: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
*St Thomas Aquinas: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
*St John of the Cross: “If anything pleases God it is the exaltation of the soul. Since there is no way by which He can exalt her more than by making her equal to Himself, He is pleased only with her love. For the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved.”
*St John Paul II: “Jesus is the new man who calls redeemed humanity to share in His divine life. The mystery of the Incarnation lays the foundations for an anthropology which, reaching beyond its own limitations and contradictions, moves towards God Himself, indeed towards the goal of divinization. This occurs through the grafting of the redeemed on to Christ and their admission into the intimacy of the Trinitarian life. The Fathers have laid great stress on this soteriological dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation: it is only because the Son of God truly became man that man, in him and through him, can truly become a son of God.”
What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say?
*460 – The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”
*1265 – Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.
*1988 – (God) gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized.
What is this mystery all about? It is about our deification by grace. We have become sons of God in and through Jesus our Lord. His incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension all bring us to this. Even as we celebrate the Eucharist, the highest form of worship, we see the connection between the incarnation and deification, when the priest says the offertory prayer as he mixes the water with the wine. “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” Deification of man is corollary to the incarnation of God who became man.
One important caution. The devil tempted Eve in Eden by saying, “you will be like gods” (Gen 3:5). Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, disobeyed God, and paradise was lost. What is the difference between what the devil said about becoming gods and what the saints are saying about becoming God? What is the difference between the teaching of the saints and the teachings of the New Age? The difference is that the devil wanted to become God, and for humans to become gods, by their own power or the power of their own nature, while we become God only by the power and grace of God. It is a fundamental difference of nature (our human power to work and to will) versus grace (God’s working in us through the power that only belongs to Him). We become by grace what God is by nature.
We end with a final quote. St Gregory of Nyssa says, “Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none.” So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
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For reflection and/or discussion: Consider the great and wonderful gift and privilege given us by God, to partake of His divine nature.
For prayer and action: Desire to grow in perfection, in being perfect as the Father is perfect, and forgiving as the Father has forgiven you.
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Notice: The above is taken from my forthcoming new book, “Forty Days of Challenge in the Christian Life.” The book will tackle 40 difficult teachings in the Bible and explain what these mean.
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God bless you.
“For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.” (Phil 1:21)
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